Monday, July 9, 2012

Tricks of the Trade

Despite what that title might indicate, this is not a post in which I reveal to you bits and bobs that can make your work look more (or less) professional. Okay, it sort of is, but that's not why it's called "Tricks of the Trade." No, this is all about new Magic art, which appears on a card whose title happens to be "Tricks of the Trade." But don't let that stop you from reading on, because there are actual secrets revealed herein. Dark, horrible secrets, from a life filled with shame and regret...

Let's start with the description, shall we?
Color: Blue Spell
Location: A dimly lit temple or shrine
Action: The spell shows the use of magic by an amazing merfolk thief. Show a rogue hanging upside down as she slides down a rope into a dimly lit temple or shrine. She’s about to steal something, and she’s using powerful stealth magic. Her merfolk skin shimmers with waves of subtle blue-green light. Maybe she’s using just her feet to slide down the rope, which is an incredible feat of athleticism. She’s young, attractive, and dressed in the dark-colored clothes of a thief. Maybe we see the object that she is planning to steal, but it’s not necessary.
Focus: The scene
Mood: Who needs picklocks when you’ve got spells?
This piece is from the new Magic 2013 core set. Unlike the expansion sets which have fancy names and come with style guides, the core sets tend to be visually less specific in their location, and tend to allow the artists to do their own concepting for a change. In other words, we get to play around a bit more and stretch our legs.

While I'd like to say that I got to do all those things and come up with some insane stuff on this piece, I can't really. You see, with the description above, I got a bunch of examples of what the merfolk should look like. While not a formal style sheet, the sample images effectively served the same purpose. I knew what the merfolk were meant to look like, and I knew vaguely what their clothing should entail. Now, I'm not mentioning this in an attempt to file a complaint, but I'm also not going to deny being a little disappointed that I was following someone else's designs on an annual set that has traditionally been more open-ended. It would have been nice to just do my own thing. Disappointment or no, it was the assignment I was given and there were still problems that needed solving. I could complain or I could try and do my best with it. I chose the latter.

So, I took the description and attached images and I immediately started to finagle a solution. The first hurdle was figuring out a pose that solved the problem. My big worry when posing things typically is the reduced size of the reproduction. It's always a potential issue that the figures won't read correctly in card form. In this case, I had a merfolk suspended from a rope by their legs. Not necessarily an easy task. I drew a bunch of different things and finally settled on a pose. I quickly realized, however, that with the pose and the rope it was going to be difficult to fit into the composition in large enough form to read properly. Honestly, the piece felt like it should be a vertically oriented, but I somehow had to fit it into the horizontal space allotted. The only way I could get it to work was by rotating the camera and viewing the thief from below, forcing her into a pretty severe perspective.  I drew it up formally, and handed in the following sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast
Despite it's rather lackluster quality, this sketch was approved, so I shot reference and went to paint.

Wait. Let me back up a second. I just glossed over something that I think is worth talking about: shooting reference. While I've talked at great length about the generalities of shooting reference, I think it's worth talking about this bit of reference specifically. While I'm not going to show you the pictures, I can tell you that the reference for this piece required Amy and I to take turns posing and photographing one another. We posed by balancing on our stomachs atop an old steamer trunk, arching our backs and attempting to mimic the position seen above. It was pretty taxing physically, but I got what I needed, and I'm not going to deny being sore the next morning.

Unlike a lot of folks, I tend not to Frankenstein a bunch of shots together to create a master reference image. Instead, I select two or three that come the closest to the desired result and bounce between them. This process is just a different means to the same end, but I find that my mind is a bit more engaged while I'm working. Having worked both ways, I honestly can't advocate one method over another, I think it's always best to figure out what works for you and go with that.

So, yeah, the painting.

Given how much of the aesthetic was already determined, I decided to spend some time on the architecture. Seemed to me that it was the one place that I could add something significant to the piece, and it was a subject that was still sorely lacking from my work in general. Even if this didn't end up being a portfolio piece, it was at least practice.

The magic described in the art order was pretty vague, but the obvious solution in my mind was for the magic to look almost like water reflections. Not sure why it was obvious, but it's what my gut told me to do. My only concern was that these magic reflections wouldn't stand out properly. My solution was to give the piece a very warm palette, while keeping the magic glistening very cool and slightly out of place.

At least that's what I intended. Then life got in the way.

©Wizards of the Coast
This is what the painting looks like. It's 12"x9", is the usual oil on hardboard, and for whatever reason I didn't incorporate the magic glow into the piece from the beginning. This lapse was a mistake to be sure because it caused a headache and resulted a finish that looks quite different from the published version.

While it's not a very good excuse, I can tell you that this piece was done right as Amy lost her job in Massachusetts and the daunting conversations surrounding her career's future and our potential relocation began while I was painting this very piece. Obviously there's a lot to be concerned about when big things like this hit you, and as I'm a pretty nervous guy by nature, my worry levels increased ten fold when Amy's job went kaput. Unfortunately, a lot of my fears and self-doubt wound up in this piece. I remember feeling pretty confident about things after the sketch was approved, but I can tell you that I lost much of that confidence as the image progressed. I lost faith that I could pull it off, and I resolved midway through to polish it off digitally.

In retrospect, this decision was pretty curious given that my digital skills are pretty weak. If there's anything I should have had little to no faith about, it should have been my ability to do a decent job painting the magic in Photoshop. For some reason, however, it seemed like a really good idea. Since I'd lost faith in my ability to pull it off in paint, at least I would be switching to a medium that allowed for pushing and pulling to my heart's content. I could do something and undo it just as easily.
Given how the timing was working out, with the deadline looming, I had left myself no other options. Not if I wanted to turn the job in on time, anyway. So I plugged in my Wacom tablet and went to work.

This is the result:

©Wizards of the Coast
I've got mixed feelings about this hybrid piece. I like both versions, but I'm not sure I like the version with the magic more. I guess that's why I've left the painting be in its original form. I'm not sure if that's a mistake or not. Either way, I was too quickly on to the next job to go back into it, and I've honestly not thought a whole lot about it since.

In many ways the fact that I pulled it off and handed it in on time was a miracle. There were a lot of sleepless nights and hard conversations happening at the time, and I was pretty distracted. Eventually, Amy moved into my studio with me and did much of her job searching from just a few feet away. We got to spend four months hanging out together while figuring out our next move, and believe it or not it ended up being more fun than stressful. Initially, though, I was just a ball of nerves and this painting will likely always remind me of that. All things considered, it could have come out WAY worse.


  1. I wonder how you shot the reference? did you let your wife lay on the ground imitating the pose?

    1. She balanced on the trunk while I took photos and then I posed while she photographed me. Pretty simple. She obviously has a more appropriate body for a female merfolk, and I got much of my information from her poses. I tend to get things like hand gestures and such correct, so that's why we bothered with photos of me.


  2. I think the background in this piece looks magnificent. I think you did great with the magic effects too. I can only tell they're digital if I scour the details really closely.


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